“The Glamour and Confusion of the Times”: Martha Walker and the Invasion of Quebec[1]

by Catherine Treesh, Yale University

No one in town dared “look at, much less Enter my house, for fear of falling under suspicion of being accomplices in the supposed Treason; every one forbid[den] on pain of Imprisonment to carry a scrip of paper for me to my husband.”[2]

This was Martha Walker’s recollection of Montreal in the summer of 1775. Married to the radical merchant Thomas Walker, Martha suffered alienation and harassment as her husband’s allies — the rebellious Americans — invaded her city.

The Massachusetts Historical Society has one of the only copies of Martha’s account of these months. She recorded her memories of this summer many years later, but her narrative still crackles with emotion and high drama. Not only a compelling story, Martha Walker’s account raises possibilities and questions about how women navigated the political turmoil of Revolutionary North America.

Thomas Walker belonged to a small group of merchants who were angered by Parliament’s recent legislation and wanted to protest with the rebelling Americans. In the winter of 1774-1775, Thomas ran a pro-American information campaign. He disseminated pamphlets from the Continental Congress; he sent his political allies throughout Quebec to convert illiterate French Canadians; and he met with radical emissaries from Boston to coordinate their efforts.[3] For all of this work Thomas gained notoriety:  the governor of Quebec, General Guy Carleton, targeted him as a treasonous rebel who must be stopped.[4]

Martha’s account picks up several months into her husband’s organizing, when Thomas had moved his operations to their country home and the governor had reached his breaking point. She describes how Governor Carleton used Thomas’s absence to terrorize the Walkers’ household for information. Soldiers kidnapped her servant and threatened him “to be hung up immediately if he did not divulge all he knew of [the Walkers’] correspondence (with the Rebels).”[5] A few weeks later, soldiers intercepted a messenger carrying one of Martha’s letters. Martha recalled how soldiers “stript him from head to foot; & even the linings of his shoes were ripped up to search for Letters.”[6]

Martha was traumatized by the governor’s intelligence-gathering and intimidation campaign. Left alone in Montreal to deal with it, Martha met with the governor and demanded to know what crimes she and her husband had committed. She tried to convince Governor Carleton that her husband was a loyal subject and “did not correspond with the Rebels.” Deaf to her many arguments, the governor had already made up his mind. He insisted that Thomas “was a dangerous Man” and that “the safety of the Province required” that they should both leave the colony immediately.[7]

And so Martha fled Montreal, joining Thomas at their country home to “share his fate.”[8]

What a fate it was! After the Americans’ failed invasion of Montreal in September 1775, Governor Carleton ordered Thomas arrested for high treason. When the soldiers came to collect Thomas, they got into an old-fashioned shoot out. The gunfire ended when soldiers set fire to the Walkers’ home, forcing Martha and Thomas to escape out of a second story window. As he dragged Martha away from her burning home, a soldier scolded her: “you have been very forward, in this affair of the Rebellion… We know, what you have done.”[9]

But did the soldiers actually know what Martha had done? And how much can we know now?  Despite all of its captivating descriptions, Martha’s narrative gives us few clues as her involvement with her husband’s organizing. Throughout her account she denies that either she or her husband were in league with the Americans. But historians know that Thomas was indeed the ringleader of rebellious colonists in Montreal, and that the couple ended up under the political protection of the nascent United States. So was Martha lying when she told the governor that her husband wasn’t corresponding with rebel Americans? Was she a brilliant political operative attempting to use her status as a wealthy woman to gain the governor’s sympathy? If Martha was involved, why would she deny it years later in an unpublished manuscript? Martha’s narrative alone can’t answer these questions, but it does give us insight into the many and varied ways women were political players during the American Revolution.

[1] Mrs. Thomas Walker, “The Shurtleff manuscript, no. 153: Being a narrative of certain events which transpired in Canada, during the invasion of that province but the American Army, in 1775,” ed. Rev. Silas Ketchum (Contoocook, NH: The New Hampshire Antiquarian Society, 1876), 35.

[2] Walker, “The Shurtleff manuscript, no. 153,” 44.

[3] For more on Thomas Walker and pro-American organizing in Quebec, see Chapters 3 and 4 in Mark R. Anderson, The Battle for the Fourteenth Colony:  America’s War of Liberation in Canada, 1774-1776 (Hanover, NH:  University Press of New England, 2013).

[4] For Governor Carleton’s official dispatches complaining about Thomas Walker, see CO 42/34, British National Archives, Kew, England.

[5] Walker, “The Shurtleff manuscript, no. 153,” 39.

[6] Walker, “The Shurtleff manuscript, no. 153,” 41.

[7] Walker, “The Shurtleff manuscript, no. 153,” 42.

[8] Walker, “The Shurtleff manuscript, no. 153,” 45.

[9] Walker, “The Shurtleff manuscript, no. 153,” 49. See also Anderson, The Battle for the Fourteenth Colony, 121-122; Thomas Walker, “Mr. Walker’s Statement” in Peter Force, ed., American Archives, 4th Series, vol. 4, 1176-1179.